I can hardly believe it’s been twenty years since he died.
I think and write a lot on the subject of loss and grief. My Opa’s sudden and unexpected death at age sixty-seven of a heart attack would be my first real experience with these things.
Other than a few pets (we couldn’t seem to keep a dog for long), I had never lost anyone really close to me. I was ten that year and able to start to better grasp what it meant to have someone who is always just there disappear with little warning, never to be seen again.
It was 1994 and my brothers were hugely into Nirvana. The early nineties was a time of grunge music and this year would see the shocking death of lead Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain that April, but one month earlier we, as a family, would lose someone we loved just as suddenly.
It was the beginning and the end.
A winter, including losing our cock-a-poo Maggie when she decided to run out onto the road. This was traumatic enough for a ten-year-old, but I would soon learn what it was to lose someone I loved and, naively enough, thought might always be there.
My father had worked at Woolco for almost twenty years and his parents were proud and liked to shop there. I have very few memories of that store, as it was at the time. The in-store cafeteria, The Red Grill, my only memory. I would sometimes eat there with Oma and Opa, going around and filling our trays with french fries. I was proud of my father’s job there too.
It’s hard to imagine at this moment, with the winter we’ve had this year, but twenty years ago, just like a few years back, was an exceptionally warm and sunny mid March, as spring arrived early and it was a time for renewal and rebirth.
A few days before, my father and the other employees were called into a meeting to inform them that the American company WAL-MART had purchased the store and Woolco was history. Big changes all around.
Oma and Opa had come over on a Saturday like they often did, laden with bags of groceries. They would often go to the market early Saturday mornings and come back with loads of fresh buns and deli meat. We would all sit around the dining room table and have a cup of tea together. It was our little tradition.
This particular Saturday my brother and I had our Jump Rope For Heart pledge sheets all ready for their donation. They always supported us in those things. My brother had also just lost a tooth and they were interested in that too. They were a team, having been married over forty-five years.
Only a few days later and Brian and I were practicing our skipping in the living room in the evening, before bed, when the phone suddenly rang. It was our uncle and there was a problem.
Dad rushed off. An ambulance was taking Opa to the hospital. It was his heart. Dad was going to meet them there. All the times after that Oma would speak of finding him in the bathroom, clutching the sink and how she helped him back to sit on the edge of the bed, unaware that these would be her last moments with her dear husband.
I lay in bed, waiting for news, my feet up on the wooden frame of the customized bunk bed my uncles had built. I was fearful of course, but not so certain anything was going to come of it. He always seemed so full of energy and life.
When I awoke the next morning I came out into the hall and there they all were. Dad told us the sad news; he was gone.
As we, as a family, sat around with our cups of tea warming our hands, we discussed our memories of him. I didn’t quite realize at the time how this was affecting my father. He had had a complicated relationship with his own father. Lots of people had their own struggles with Opa , but I was blissfully unaware of such complex adult issues.
I had been looking all over for a Brenda doll to add to my almost complete collection of Beverly Hills 90210 Barbie set, being newly obsessed with the teen drama. I had Kelly, Dylan, and Brandon, thanks to my sister and Christmas, but Brenda was harder to locate. We finally found her at a warehouse somewhere in Toronto. That lovely warm March day we received the call that the package had arrived and made our way, the fresh loss dampening my would-be enthusiasm, to the nearby post office. I spent my afternoon out on the back deck, so newly built, enjoying the weather and quietly playing with my new doll. I loved Barbie, a sign I was still a child, but this event would begin to change all that for me.
We spent the next few days with Oma, keeping her company and ordering KFC, which was lovingly referred to in our family as Opa’s chicken.
The funeral was small and intimate, strictly immediate family. My uncle sang Amazing Grace and then it was time to visit the casket. This I was not prepared for. As we stood there, I saw him lying so still and motionless, his face etched against the background of his resting place. My brother could not see this image. His only way of saying goodbye was to reach out and touch Opa’s hand. He commented on how cold it felt. I stood there, frozen on the spot, unable to follow suit. I said goodbye in my own way, but in the moment I could not bring myself to touch him. My childish fear stopped me.
I would miss him. I would miss how he used to read stories about Oscar the Grouch and a woman who had a window installed in her abdomen during her pregnancy so her other child could see the baby growing. Gone were the Saturday mornings, waking to the smells of pancakes and coming down the hall and into the kitchen in my nightgown to see him at the end of the breakfast table, in his spot, drinking his tea and eating his fruit. I would never again be able to sit with him in their little covered porch, counting and sorting Smarties by colour. I would never again be able to sit with him on a bench in the mall while he would quiz me to see how much I could see of the signs of the stores nearby, all while Oma shopped. I would miss his voice and his hugs and when he would sing opera. I got him for ten years and I knew I was lucky.
I was a child, unable to comprehend how losing him would feel for others who loved him. I could see it more and more as the years passed. It was clear in how Oma would speak of him and how she kept an urn containing his ashes and a picture of him on her dresser, speaking to it every morning and night. I often found myself up in that room when we’d go to visit her, standing there and feeling close to him, wondering about life and death, burial verses cremation. I would sometimes find my father up there and I began to wonder just what it was he was thinking.
The song Tears In Heaven by Eric Clapton became all about him. I wondered if I would ever see him again, in some form or at some distant time, and if he’d remember who I was and the things we used to do together. These thoughts about death would follow me, into a future where I would lose more grandparents to old age and cousins to tragic suicides.
Soon after losing his father, my own would become highly emotional anytime The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics would come on the radio. It is a song about a man and his regrets:
Every generation, blames the one before
And all of their frustrations, come beating on your door
I know that I’m a prisoner, to all my father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage, to all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years
Crumpled bits of paper, filled with imperfect thoughts
Stilted conversations, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
You say you just don’t see it. He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement. In this present tense
We all talk a different language. Talking in defence
Say it loud say it clear. You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die, to admit we don’t see eye to eye
So we open up a quarrel, between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future, it’s the bitterness that lasts
So don’t yield to the fortunes, you sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective, on a different date
And if you don’t give up and don’t give in, you may just be okay
I wasn’t there that morning, when my father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him, all the things I had to say
I think I caught his spirit, later that same year
I just wish I could have told him in the living years
I was an expert at listening to song lyrics and interpreting them. I knew how a song could speak to one person in a very private and meaningful way. I hesitated to ask my father what it all meant, but I was perceptive enough to understand that he had longstanding feelings of regret and sadness when he would think of his father. If only we all knew when we and others we loved would suddenly no longer be here: Would we then make it our mission to say all that we wanted and needed to say while we still had the chance? I don’t know. Regret is a very powerful shaper of our lives. What would my father have said or done differently in regards to his father and their relationship if he’d known?
I started to realize that the Opa I knew was not the same man others experienced. To me, he was a fairly quiet and mild-mannered, sweet old man who loved me unconditionally. Over time I could have blocked it out, but I don’t recall him ever getting angry with me. I remember Oma to always be the stronger more dominant one, growing impatient with her husband at times. I had to really take the time to imagine what it must have been like to be the son. I knew Opa in a very small way and through a lens. I got a little piece of him, but never the entire picture.
His life was long before I came on the scene. He had anger and hurt inside that others received the brunt of. He wasn’t the easiest man to live with or love. I could see this in my father’s missing of him and in his unspoken words.
As time went on I began to forget the sound of his voice and that made me sad, but I knew my sadness was nothing compared to how it must have been for Oma to go on without him. She did a great job at living, for many years, but he was a missing part of her. I think he made her feel safe and taken care of. We all tried our best to help fill that void, but it wasn’t the same.
I look at my parents in a whole new light since that first loss of a loved one. I see my father and I know he can never get those times back with his own dad. He wishes they had said more and been closer, but these are things I can not truly grasp. I feel it every time he says he loves me and others in his life. He has learned a lot from his father, since the loss of him. He has a temper that I now realize Opa had too. I know he has a bit of Opa inside of him. This can be seen in his faults and in his strength. I love all of him and his father before him.
It has been twenty years and I can hardly believe it. Ten years later we, as a family, would again face loss and grief together, just as sudden and just as unexpectedly, with the death of my cousin. Our family, although spread out, would come together and we would learn things about ourselves and the ones we loved. Grief is an unwanted teacher. It exposes our weakness and highlights our strength. I define myself as the little girl I was before and the woman I would become after we lost Opa.
Afterward I used to imagine it had all been a dream, that everything after he died hadn’t really happened and I would wake and be ten years old again. This feeling stayed with me for a long long time. It was a significant and pivotal point in my life. I wonder often what he’d think of the woman I am now and all I’ve been through. We lost him way too soon, but that’s life sometimes.
I have a wonderful relationship with my parents and won’t let things go unsaid until, one day, it becomes too late to say anything at all. I have learned not to take people I love for granted because it won’t always be so easy to tell them “I love you.” This is a sad reality in itself. Grief and loss play a big part in how, what, and why I write. I think about these things often and I feel helpless and small in such a big complicated universe. My memories of Opa slip a way a little all the time, but the lessons I’ve gained from losing him never will. The return of spring, with its rebirth and renewal only come around a certain number of times, giving us all a certain number of chances to make things right with those we love. We must revel in the chances while they come around. The end of something does inevitably bring the beginning of something else.